That this slim paperback volume, only 88 pages total, put out as part of Barnes & Co's Perpetua "Kings of Jazz" series in 1961, is the only book length study we have of Johnny Dodds, might seem monumentally depressing if not for a couple of facts: First, sad as it might be to say, it's more than we have for Jimmie Noone. Second, while its brevity is disappointing, the content is solid and interesting.
Chapter One give a brief seventeen page outline of Dodds's life and career. Lambert discusses the racial divide in the New Orleans of Dodds's youth, with two distinct musical styles developing: one Uptown, where the black [ or "Negro"] community developed a more blues-based music, the other Downtown which favored more refined Creole orchestras. [pg 4]. Dodds operated between the two communities. As Lambert put it "Dodds himself was a Negro...but by this time a degree of mixing was standard in New Orleans bands. For example, when Johnny took his first full time professional engagement, it was with Kid Ory's band; Ory is [sic] a Creole from La Place, a small town ear New Orleans, who first brought his band into the city in 1913."
In 1920, Dodds replaced Jimmie Noone in King Oliver's Creole Orchestra in Chicago, where he entered the most noted part of his career. The roaring '20s were to be the decade in which Johnny made his mark, recording classics with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton. And while some of his work from the 1930s, when he was leading bands himself, might feature even more definitive solos for clarinetists to study, it's his work from the '20s that will undoubtedly remain the most famous.
Dodds remained in Chicago even after the center of gravity for jazz shifted to New York in the 1930s, and like so many of his generation of New Orleans style players, his contribution was too quickly neglected. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Sidney Bechet, Edmond Hall, Louis Armstrong, and Barney Bigard, he didn't live long enough to get a second wind with the New Orleans revival starting in the 1940s. As Lambert puts it:
"The biography of Johnny Dodds is a tragic one, rising through his quick success in New Orleans, on to the triumphant years in Chicago with the Oliver band, and the many fine recordings he made while leading his own group at Kelly's Stables, only to fade suddenly into the twilight obscurity of the last ten years of his life. He was admired by all the musicians who heard him in the early days--even Benny Goodman, a musicians far removed in style and temperament, has said that he never heard anyone get a finer tone out of the clarinet than Johnny Dodds--while the majority of his 1920 recordings are numbered among the ageless classics of jazz." [pg 16]
Lambert's analysis of Dodds's playing is keen and sensitive to fluxuations and changes throughout Chapter Two, which deals with the recordings.
In the third and final Chapter, the author offers his assessment of Dodds's contribution to jazz, and some of the points he makes are so profound, it's surprising and gratifying that anyone was publishing them in 1961. For example, when discussing the solo breaks Dodds made on the King Oliver recordings, Lambert points out:
"Almost any of the breaks by Oliver or by Dodds on these records are as perfected rhythmically as anything in later jazz, but the emphasis and the style were different, and unless we realize this we cannot help but fall into the error of constantly undervaluing the work of the New Orleans musicians. They were not simply pioneers whose place in jazz history was to pave the way for Louis Armstrong and his successors, but men with a fully developed and valid way of playing. It is true that an approach to this sort of jazz can be made neither with the techniques of the European academy, nor if one wishes to find in jazz a pleasant appendage to European culture." [pg 66-67]
These observations are no less relevant today then when they were first published. Although it is a very slim volume, it's filled with such insights, pointing towards a reconsideration of this remarkable musician and his playing.
Fortunately for us, it will continue to be available for the foreseeable future, as Amazon now offers it in Kindle format.